Popular Music on American Television
Why is American Idol so popular?  We've all heard the arguments for and against reality television.  But might it actually be beneficial for popular culture?  In this article I argue that American Idol is part of a tradition that goes back to the early days of television in the 1950s, that makes music from different generations accessible to a wide audience. 

Monika E. Lewis

Professor Frith

Music 112

27 April 2007

Popular Music on American Television

              Since the 1950’s, when more Americans began getting a television in their homes, the new music of the time, rock and roll, began to appear as programming. From 1956, when Elvis Presley made his first on-air performances, to today’s singing competitions and musical guests on talk shows, television allows fans to see stars of many genres using the visual medium. Many of today’s music programs have parallels in the earliest days of television and rock music, reflecting the continued influence of the baby boom generation that grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

           As television became an increased presence in American households, so did rock and roll. The baby-boomer generation showed its first demographic effect on television with American Bandstand, which proved “successful” (Adams) upon its debut in 1957, despite disapproval from older critics. In a 1958 article, John P. Shanley observed that host Dick Clark’s “shows consist basically of the kind of music that most teen-agers love and many adults abhor. Rock ‘n’ roll, as bellowed by such latter-day idols as Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis, is de rigeur on a Clark show.” Today, these musicians are considered among the most important figures of rock and roll. Some have observed that each generation is likely to have a preference for the music they grew up with, while seeing the music their children listen to as not as good. Kevin J.H. Dettmar says in his book Is Rock Dead? that this hatred of modern music by parents find that “pronouncing it dead is a comforting, if not finally efficacious, way of staying its menace” (xii). Even today, “hippie parents who met at Woodstock are grimly shaking their heads at the music coming out of their children’s bedrooms, cars, and iPods” (Dettmar xii). However, today’s youth may have more knowledge and respect for their parents’ music than previous generations, in addition to that of today.

          In recent weeks, the top two highest rated shows on television have been the Tuesday and Wednesday editions of American Idol. Called “America’s biggest, most addictive reality competition” (Slezak), “it has attracted 26 million to 37 million viewers per telecast this season” (Carlson). It is also perhaps the first truly interactive American television show, having subsequently influenced reality competitions like Dancing with the Stars to allow viewers to determine which contestants proceed and which leave. The show regularly attracts popular musical stars of the past and present as guest mentors such as Tony Bennett, Jennifer Lopez, Gwen Stefani, Bono, and Jon Bon Jovi, who coach the contestants in singing music of their era. In return, in what has been called the “American Idol effect,” album sales increase for the guest, even “popera” singers like season five advisor Andrea Bocelli.

Though some doubted that “singing on a reality show could translate into real-world success” for the contestants, stars like first-season winner Kelly Clarkson proved that American Idol is “a first-class training ground for future pop-culture giants” (Pak 19). Other winners like Carrie Underwood have won Grammy awards for their music, while contestant Jennifer Hudson won a Golden Globe and Academy Award in 2007 for her performance in the musical film Dreamgirls. While other contestants have had varying levels of success, American Idol has been incorporated into the pop industry. The former competitors who have gotten the most radio airplay and sell the most albums encompass a variety of genres, like Underwood’s country persona or Chris Daughtry’s rock.

In a conscious throwback to American Bandstand, host Ryan Seacrest models his stage persona on Dick Clark, even hosting Clark’s ABC New Year’s Eve program in 2006. Seacrest described Clark as “the god of broadcasting” (People 13). The two hosts have a similar work ethic: in 1958, Clark was “on the air for a total of thirteen hours, eight of them on the network’s facilities” every week (Shanley), while today Seacrest is “a DJ on KIIS-FM and is the new host of ‘American Top 40’” as well as his appearances on American Idol twice a week (People 13).

Like many shows on television today and in recent years, American Idol has its basis in a British program. The creator of Pop Idol, Simon Fuller, brought the show to the United States in 2002, in addition to numerous other countries around the world. Mike Phillips, BBC Worldwide “director of international television,” says that “Hollywood is really a fiction business,” so the British producers control how the exported reality shows are made in most countries (Brown). While American television pioneered “the art of doing live television” in the 1940’s and 1950’s, it “has been largely forgotten in America. That’s why Brits run the show there” (Alan Boyd, qtd. in Brown). American Idol has made use of its position as the top program on television by hosting a telethon to benefit the poor in Africa and America, which raised more than $60 million in pledges from viewers (“'Idol' charity donations top $60M”). “Idol Gives Back” generated additional contributions from companies like News Corp., which donated $5 million based on votes for the final six contestants.

American Idol began as part of a wave of nostalgia programs on American television in the 2000’s. While “American Idol recalls the old Ted Mack Amateur Hour and Ed McMahon’s Star Search, the candy-colored Broadway musical Hairspray and the much hyped new NBC show American Dreams draw on fond remembrances of the American Bandstand era” (Kaukutani). In 1957 critics said that adults “won’t care at all for American Bandstand (Shanley), but by 2003, Dreams was considered something that the whole family could watch by its creators. It appealed to baby boomers’ nostalgia for their childhood by structuring the show around American Bandstand. Featuring a Philadelphia family in the 1960’s, Dreams portrayed a 15 year old girl, Meg, whose goal was to dance on Bandstand. To appeal to younger viewers, Dreams used modern pop singers to portray performers who appeared on Bandstand (Gerston). The 2002 show demonstrated the role of television and music in peoples’ lives. Meg’s parents are the representation of those critics and older adults who disapproved of rock and roll music, since her father is reluctant to allow her to go to the show and be on television. At the same time, the music symbolizes the social issues of the time as it becomes more politicized.

The Ed Sullivan Show in the late 1950’s and 1960’s began to host more rock and pop performances, but still showed television producers’ ambivalence towards the modern music. When Elvis Presley made his television debut in 1956 on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show, considered the first rock performance on TV, his “gyrations were obscured by waist-up shots.” “Television was domesticated, family-oriented, and basically wholesome if not oppressively straitlaced; rock was freewheeling, youth-oriented, and basically insolent if not thrillingly dissolute. Tensions were inevitable, even if antagonism was commercially impractical” (Carson). Presley became popular in the United States due to his 1956 television appearances, most importantly on The Ed Sullivan Show, as did the Beatles in their February 9, 1964 Sullivan performance. These examples of rock and roll showed the disconnect between the entertainment of the baby boomers and older people. Comedian Charlie Brill came onto the show with his wife and comedy partner Mitzi McCall after the Beatles, though he didn’t know who the Beatles were before they got to New York for the show. He recalled, “‘The people are roaring and the audience is crazed with 14- and 15-year-old girls, and now Ed comes out and says, 'And now the comedy of McCall and Brill.' They're still screaming for the Beatles! We went out — we couldn't hear each other. And we thought we bombed…” (“Vegas Report”). However, he went on to a long career, including a part in one of the most popular Star Trek episodes, “The Trouble with Tribbles,” a role which he reprised in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine 30th anniversary episode “Trials and Tribble-ations.” Other famous performers, like Davy Jones, who would later appear in the made-for-television Beatles imitation group “The Monkees,” and Frank Gorshin, also appeared in this episode. Despite their being overshadowed by the Beatles at the time, their appearance on the same show with the group may have led to them getting more high-profile roles.

In the 1970s, television programs began to show rock music on its own terms rather than compromising it to appeal to the broadest audience. Black music was represented by Soul Train, which debuted in 1971, and had “a prestige for which there was no white rock-TV equivalent” (Carson). In the late 1970’s, Saturday Night Live regularly featured several rock and new wave performers in its early shows. In the second episode broadcast in 1975, musical guest Paul Simon was given control over most of the show, inviting colleagues like Art Garfunkel to perform duets and solos. In later years the musical guest format became more structured, usually with one performer given two songs. In keeping with the original Saturday Night Live cast’s image as “the Beatles of comedy,” the show supported new and innovative musicians from the beginning of the show as well as beginning a new tradition of late-night comedy. When Saturday Night Live debuted, “an entire generation” of people under 30 “tuned in and, perhaps for the first time in their lives, saw themselves” (Wiegand).

In 1981, the debut of MTV (Music TeleVision) provided a showcase for the rock music and culture of the younger generation. While network television had to appeal to everyone, cable channels could cater to a niche audience. The VH1 channel for classic rock, geared toward “white baby boomers” (Carson) who grew up with American Bandstand, allowed MTV to show more alternative and rap videos. While today MTV produces cheaper reality programming, other stations like Fuse have begun to challenge MTV with its emphasis on music videos, MTV’s original focus (Banks).

In the history of music television, programs that showcased rock and roll have attracted the young audience and demonstrated the most influence on subsequent series. Series like American Bandstand and Saturday Night Live began outside the mainstream. They attribute their staying power to their innovative format and their speaking to youth whose interests weren’t addressed before. In many instances, the baby boomer generation defined what would become new and popular, an influence that continues today with nostalgia programs like American Dreams that celebrate the music of the 1960’s. Today shows like American Idol find their popular appeal in allowing anyone around the country to have a chance to be a star, with the potential to revitalize the pop music industry. While the diverse array of music genres lead to more niche markets among listeners, the continued popularity of music programming on television shows that there are still some shows that can bring many people together.

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